Musician and producer
Published in PM February 2009
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Never one to bow to commercial demands, Todd Rundgren has always preferred to think outside of the musical mainstream, and with a career spanning more than 40 years, the eclectic musician, songwriter and producer is now widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of his generation.
As the title of Todd Rundgren's classic 1973 solo album A Wizard, A True Star aptly sums up, Rundgren is, and has always been, the sonic wizard. In his illustrious stellar career he has weaved his magic under many guises as songwriter, producer, recording artist and even computer software developer. With his newly released studio album of original music, Arena, Rundgren has also taken a more guitar-heavy route than on previous outings. As he was preparing to conjure up his magic for a live English audience in November 2008, Performing Musician caught up with Rundgren to find out a little more about his sonic witchery.
Performing Musician: With your new album, Arena, more of a bombastic, guitar-driven outing, how did you approach this recording compared to your previous efforts?
Todd Rundgren: "I knew beforehand that it was going to be pretty much a guitar record. I wanted to do a bit of experimenting with sounds and arrangements, and push the keyboards, if any, as far into the background as appropriate. Part of the whole approach for this album has to do with recent history and circumstances, which found me performing in this sort of format for the past couple of years. It had a lot to do with my experience with the New Cars and the fact that we were supposed to do a tour that ended abruptly when our lead guitar player broke his collarbone. So I had to quickly scramble something together in order to stay performing and not be looking at a year of nothing. It turned out that I put together an old-fashioned guitar quartet — two guitars, bass and drums. And it also turned out that the fans were really eating it up. They really liked the return to this kind of prior incarnation."
PM: When it comes to both the studio and live environments, do you have a preference for either?
TR: "I like the opportunity to do both, as it keeps me from becoming blasé and stale about either one of them. I don't spend as much time in the studio as I used to, mostly because of the ongoing evolution of the industry and the fact that recording technology has become so acceptable for so many artists that almost everyone has their own little studio nowadays. I keep myself busy doing my own records and doing a lot more live performances than I would have done in years where my production schedule was richer."
PM: How far do you go in order to get your recorded sounds accurately reproduced on stage?
TR: "It is only practical for me to go so far at this point, because I'm travelling kind of gypsy-style. We don't have the big tour bus. Fuel costs and other expenses have made that a luxury at this point and something you can only practically do if you've got relatively short routes in between the gigs. Instead, we find ourselves flying from place to place. We have a company that provides me with an amplifier on the road and ideally I download my sounds into it. But often, because there will be variations in model numbers or something will not work, I find myself manually tuning up the sounds at the last minute before the doors open. So it isn't really practical for me to get too anal about the exact sound of the studio. But I'm very concerned that the band does play the proper arrangements. So though the sound may not be exactly the same, the arrangement has to be pretty much the way I recorded it."
PM: For the live environment, what is your gear rig comprised of?
TR: "I use a Line 6 Flextone III with a 2 x 12. I have an amp that I own at home, which I take with me for use in the smaller venues. It's an old Line 6 AX2. The model actually goes back to the Tube Tone line of software amp models. If I'm playing larger venues, I'll use another Line 6, but utilise it as a stack — a separate head and two cabinets.
"The only other piece of gear I take with me is a foot controller. And the one I prefer is essentially the smallest one they make, and ideally with only four buttons, as I'm only going to use four sounds. I don't ever really use the wah-wah pedal, though I do have a song on Arena that uses a wah-wah, but I don't feel like messing with it, so I give Jesse [Gress, the backing band guitarist] the opportunity to go full round on that track. Jesse's got a fairly complicated setup that I couldn't even begin giving you the details of.
"When it comes to guitars, it has been the same one I've played for more than a decade and a half now. It goes by the name of 'Foamy' and is essentially a foam green Fernandes Strat style with active electronics and pretty much nothing else customised on it."
PM: Do you have any backup guitars with you?
TR: "The backup for me isn't particularly important. But since recently we've been having a bit of trouble with the sounds of my guitar, I did pick up another guitar that is completely dissimilar in shape, but has the same pickup layout and same active electronics as Foamy. But I pretty much don't change guitars live. I do the whole show with just that same guitar."
Getting the sound
PM: Do you employ any effective sound strategies when faced with the differing room acoustics of the varying venues you find yourself performing in?
TR: "My singular strategy is to keep my voice as low as I can possibly stand it. A lot of people are just the opposite; they want to hear the voice as loud as possible. There was a time where I depended heavily on in-ear monitors in order to get the voice where I wanted it, but over time I began to experience a lot of discomfort and other assorted problems with the use of in-ear monitors. So as a strategy I began using these Bose stage monitor towers [Bose Cylindrical Radiators]. They are two really narrow towers that have a 180-degree spread and are actually two units stacked one on top of each other. I've taken them off the towers and mounted them on front of the stage on some football kicking tees. And what that amounts to is a 6ft-long, extremely low-profile monitor that pretty much saturates anywhere I may be on the stage.
"But the problem I face is that I can't ask for those on a rental basis, because they're a custom configuration. So what I do is I work with whatever monitor they may have there, but I will hardly put anything in it — just a little bass and drums and my voice at an extremely low level. And if I need to hear my guitar, it will be a little bit of guitar mixed in there as well. The whole idea of utilising that sound strategy is that it allows me try to control the volume of the band and to keep it as low as possible. Also, it prevents the overpowering of the stage with the sounds of my voice."
PM: Do you have a specific modus operandi you adhere to when it comes to soundchecking?
TR: "Jesse will come in first and noodle around for about 20 minutes with his sound, as he will also be using a different amp every night. Even though for the most part he usually requests a Fender Twin Reverb, the variations and sounds in that particular amp can be really radical from monitor to monitor.
"The thing that will consume the most amount of time is getting the in-ear monitors right for Prairie Prince and the other players on the stage. Once everyone is happy with that, I will come out. It takes me a few seconds to get my levels straight, because I'm not dealing with the whole mix in my monitor. I'm essentially trying to keep the stage level at a point where it's comfortable and everyone can hear each other, and then I add my voice or whatever I need extra of such and such in my monitor, for example the snare and hi-hat. Then we'll play two songs for the house mixer. One song will involve a lot of vocals, while the other song will involve other things that are peculiar to that song, for example a sequence that is coming out of a computer. We'll play half that song and basically we're done."
PM: How has modern technology impacted upon the way you record and perform music today?
TR: "There have been tours, like the Liars tour for example, that depended a whole lot on things like computer sequences, special audio interfaces and multi-channel interfaces we would need to click track with the drummer throughout and still have a stereo sound for the house with the sequences that were running. On this tour, though, we are only doing that on one particular song. And if there was another way that we could do that, we probably would. Usually, on a lot of tours you would have one person whose sole responsibility is to make sure those kinds of cues happen properly, but I don't like to depend too much on other sorts of augmentation. I, for example, try and get enough singers in the band so we don't have to use samples to cover gaps and important vocal parts.
"Having said that, it also indicates that I'm not too anal about creating the same exact textures that are on the record. Playing live, to me, is about trying to capture the arrangements as we did them on the record, though we're not trying to ape the record per se. The sounds don't have to be the same and in some cases we may take additional liberties with the arrangement, because they will work better live than they did on record if we make that specific change. We're not trying to completely mirror the recording. I also believe once we've been on the road for a little while we always play the songs better than the original recorded versions."
PM: With the many hats you seem to wear, such as producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, how do you go about remaining objective in achieving the end result?
TR: "I suppose that is just part of the job. There are different styles of production and I've seen producers who, as part of their style, profess to love every note they hear the artist make. But I think that really depends on people's moods and a little bit less on being able to communicate specific things musically. Having been a musician, I can be fairly concise about changes that I think should happen and I'm not particularly shy about it. Especially in pre-production, where I have to give an artist a frank opinion about the material they intend to record.
"From my particular standpoint, there is no reason going into the studio until and unless you're confident about what it is that you're going to perform. Otherwise the weaknesses in the material will eat away at the performance. For example, singers may realise that what they're singing either doesn't make sense or doesn't come off the tongue properly or doesn't sound right for whatever reason, and that will become a sticking point in the song.
"But I don't think objectivity is what is required. Rather, it is a certain flavour of subjectivity that is what really makes a producer's style and what makes him valuable to the artist. It is what they call 'an ear'. Now, of course, everybody has an ear, but for the producer it is a way of hearing things, along with all the other practical skills of knowing how to actually achieve those things. That way of hearing is what artists are really looking for in a producer."
PM: When in the producer's seat, what is the approach you use when recording an album?
TR: "Aside from making the drums tuneful and trying to make the guitar sounds have the necessary balance of aggressiveness and clarity, I don't think that sound is a highly critical factor. The sound is, in a sense, the most subjective aspect of what you're doing. And if you look at the history of music, prioritising things to the material first, the performance second and the sound third has always been a more successful formula when it comes to making records than being concerned firstly about the sound, the performance secondly and the quality of the material thirdly. In other words, people will listen to a half-arsed performance with crappy sound of a really good song more readily than they will listen to a great performance of a crappy song that was recorded really well."
PM: You have always put sonic exploration first over any commercial concerns. What is the impetus behind this drive?
TR: "I suppose it is the delusion that I still have something to say. You could probably postulate that every song of any importance has already been written because we're dealing with such a limited vocabulary to start with. Here in the West, we have a 12-tone scale and, mathematically, because of that you're going to wind up repeating all of the significant combinations of those notes. So it is just a question of did you do it so blatantly that you had to be taken to court by somebody, à la 'My Sweet Lord' and 'He's So Fine'? That particular example makes you think that somebody must have definitely known how close they were, but just chose to ignore it. Eventually, the chickens came home to roost on that matter.
"But the whole idea of music, I think, is that it involves a certain creative kind of plagiarism. The audience only wants to hear certain combinations of things anyway. The culture is only conditioned to accept certain kinds of sounds and subject matter in music. So to be wholly original isn't the goal; it is too difficult and maybe impossible to achieve. To keep up with having at least an exciting idea is enough for me and is all I'm looking for."
PM: Do you think live performance is a highly integral part of being an artist and the way he expresses himself musically and sonically, and one that should be valued above any recorded output?
TR: "There is this whole era of music that existed before Thomas Edison first figured out how to capture 'Mary Had A Little Lamb'. All music prior to that was performed live. The only way a musician made his living was to perform music for people. And it may be that this whole era of recorded music has an illusionary aspect of that element to it, and now it's sort of settling into where it should rightly be. If you don't have an opportunity to see a musician actually play, you listen to the recorded music.
"But recorded music can hardly ever as an experience be able to replace the communal aspect of going to see an artist play live, as that experience also includes all the sights, smells and sounds that come with it all. You can burn incense and listen to Ravi Shankar in your house, but it is a completely different experience to go and see Ravi Shankar play live with perhaps 50,000 Indians in attendance. The focus of all that consciousness onto that musical performance will be completely different and cannot ever be captured with any recorded medium." 0
Published in PM February 2009
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